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Agamemnon | Parodos | Summary

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Summary

Now onstage, the Chorus members, a group of elderly Argive men, walk with canes to help them stand. They are older because it has been 10 years since Menelaus and Agamemnon set off for Troy with a fleet of ships. The god Zeus sent the brothers and their armies to fight Paris (also known as Alexander), who kidnapped Helen, Menelaus's wife. Clytaemnestra enters and the Chorus members ask for news. They have noticed increased offerings to the gods and are growing anxious.

The Chorus recalls how Agamemnon and Menelaus received a good omen—two eagles devouring a hare—at the start of the war. The prophet, Calchas, predicted an Argive victory but warned the omen also meant the goddess Artemis was angry. She protects animals and detests their sacrifices—"the eagle's feast." Calchas hoped Artemis would not delay the Argive fleet and demand a greater sacrificial offering—a slaughtered child, which "shatters families and makes the wife lose all respect and hate her husband"—to give the troops good weather conditions.

The Chorus follows the laws of Zeus, who established "wisdom comes through suffering." Trouble makes humans better people, they myth says, so when gods send favors, they are often "harsh and violent." True to the prophet's words, Agamemnon and his troops were stranded by harsh winds. Supplies ran low. Calchas told Agamemnon he had to sacrifice his daughter to appease Artemis. Both Agamemnon and Menelaus wept. Agamemnon, realizing his only alternative was to lose the war, reluctantly agreed. His daughter Iphigenia cried out and protested, but Agamemnon's men silenced her. The Chorus says Calchas's prophecies came true, and it is no use arguing with fate; "it's clear whatever is to happen will happen, like tomorrow's dawn."

Analysis

The Chorus has multiple functions. It explains relevant backstory and predicts events, it interprets the action according to the laws of the state and the gods, it speaks for the playwright, and here represents the people of the polis, or the city, reflecting their sorrow. They will be affected by the decisions of the royal household. The Chorus often uses the first-person singular pronoun when it speaks as a group, emphasizing unity of thought. Their repeated phrases ("Sing out the song of sorrow") function as a refrain in a song, intended to linger in the audience's memory.

The first extended metaphor describes Agamemnon and Menelaus as eagles, showing the two generals as birds of victory and leadership, reinforcing the bird symbol. But as the eagles devour a hare in Calchas's vision, they take advantage of the weak and this transgression angers Artemis. The passage introduces the theme of revenge versus justice. The Furies, avenging goddesses, punish transgressors. Artemis, goddess of animals and the weak and helpless, makes Agamemnon pay dearly for his aggression. Artemis supports Troy in the Trojan War (along with her twin brother Apollo).

Helen's culpability is also questioned. Aeschylus uses another bird metaphor in comparing Helen to a fledgling from the nest, stolen by Paris (also called Alexander). But many Argives, including the Chorus at times, blame Helen herself for the start of the war.

Family legacy is significant; the Chorus refers to characters such as Paris and Clytaemnestra by saying their parents' names first. To the Greeks humans are bound to their families and unable to escape punishment for past sins. By devouring the pregnant hare the eagles symbolize a legacy of destruction in which children die along with their parents. Iphigenia will become part of this legacy through no fault of her own and will not be the first child mentioned in the text to do so.

Calchas predicts Clytaemnestra's vengeance for Iphigenia's death before the sacrifice even happens. He predicts that "dreadful anger" and "treachery" will grip the house. A prophet, Calchas can foresee events, and through him the playwright uses foreshadowing effectively. Fate already knows all, as the Chorus says.

The role of the gods is important. Zeus dominates the opening acts. His power gives meaning to human experience. Apollo, god of healing, gives prophets their powers. Gods can easily influence human affairs and bend nature to their will. The Chorus members are reverent toward the gods. They believe gods give favors men often do not deserve. Since suffering is the only way mortals will learn to practice moderation, "such grace is harsh and violent." Agamemnon has seen this violence firsthand when the goddess Artemis asked for sacrifice of his daughter. The Chorus questions Agamemnon's choice to appease Artemis. One explanation for it is Ate, the goddess of ruin, may have taken his judgment, using the ruler's discretion to put the health of the city, the "ship of state," above the welfare of his family.

At first Agamemnon's intent is just; his troops must set sail, even if their commander pays the highest price. Leading them is his job. But once Agamemnon decides to sacrifice Iphigenia, his intentions change and become "profane, unholy, unsanctified." He is affected by power and ambition, his desire to win the war and obtain wealth—the "delusions" to which the Chorus refers. This decision addresses one of the core questions of the play: Does Agamemnon bring on his death himself?

When Iphigenia throws her robes onto the ground, she foreshadows Cassandra, who will do the same before going to her own sacrifice. Describing the scene of Iphigenia's death, the Chorus expresses a desire not to "grieve ahead of time" by knowing what tragic events are coming. They will continue to question the purpose of prophecy.

Flashcards for Parodos

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Term:

Cithaeron

Definition:

Moutain

Term:

catastrophe

Definition:

suffering

Term:

orchestra

Definition:

dancing ground

Term:

Protagonist

Definition:

main role

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